Monday, October 01, 2007

A little on Heaven's Queen Mother

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Today in the book club we touched on some questions about Mary, so I wanted to devote some space to fuller answers.

One question was about the virginity of Mary. In the New Testament (see Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-36) as well as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, we have a straightforward affirmation that Mary was a Virgin, at least until the birth of Jesus. The part most people aren't sure of is, What about after Jesus was born?

There are about ten instances in the New Testament where "brothers" and "sisters" of the Lord are mentioned (Mt 12:46; Mt 13:55; Mk 3:31–34; Mk 6:3; Lk 8:19–20; Jn 2:12, 7:3-10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor 9:5). Yet, from the earliest times the Church Fathers have continuously affirmed that Mary also remained a virgin after Jesus was born and for the rest of her life.

The perpetual virginity of Mary was reconciled with the biblical references to Christ’s brethren through a proper understanding of the meaning of the term "brethren." Because neither Hebrew nor Aramaic (the language spoken by Christ and his disciples) had a special word meaning "cousin," speakers of those languages could use either the word for "brother" or a circumlocution, such as "the son of my uncle." The understanding that the brethren of the Lord were Jesus’ stepbrothers (children of Joseph) rather than half-brothers (children of Mary) was the most common one until the time of Jerome (fourth century). Jerome speculated about the possibility that Christ’s brethren were actually his cousins, since in the Jewish idiom "cousins" were also referred to as "brethren."

Hilary of Poitiers [AD 354] made a strong point about the relationship in this comment: "If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion [crucifixion] to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’ [John 19:26–27], as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate" (Commentary on Matthew 1:4 ).

"Ever-Virgin" has been used in the earliest written liturgies to describe Mary. Likewise, Pope Leo the Great in his Tome (which was accepted and used by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to articulate the orthodox teaching about Christ) called Mary "ever-Virgin" and went on to explain, "Doubtless then, [Jesus] was conceived of the Holy Spirit within the womb of his Virgin Mother, who brought him forth without the loss of her virginity, even as she conceived him without its loss."

Mary's perpetual virginity continued to be held and taught in the Church through the centuries, including by the Reformers. In keeping with traditional Christian interpretation on the matter, Martin Luther made the straightforward assertion that, "It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a Virgin." Calvin indicated in his writings that these "brothers of the Lord" are cousins. Likewise, Zwingli wrote, "I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin." Also, Anglicans continued to hold the belief, like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who wrote: "I believe that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without any manner of sin, and without any breach of her virginity."

Another question that came up in our discussion was about the sinlessness of Mary. Often the two issues are closely related in Christian literature. Her virginity is hailed as an outward sign of her purity of soul. The Greek Liturgies of St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom call Mary Panagia (the "All-Holy One") and Panagiota (the "All-Sinless One").

At first glance, it seems incompatible with scripture since in Romans 3:23 we read, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." However, Paul is making this statement about the general condition of humanity. It was always understood that our Lord and our Lady were exceptions to this description. It is not hard to see the reason behind this spotless condition, which is to provide the immaculate humanity from which the divine Logos would take flesh at the Incarnation. She was redeemed by a special grace and preserved from sin for sake of the plan of salvation. The continuation of her obedient manner of life seems fitting with her character and consonant with scripture. It is also reflected in the Church Fathers and in the Reformers.

St Ephraem the Syrian wrote in a Poem to Christ, around AD 350, "Thou, and Thy Mother are alone in this. You are wholly beautiful in every respect. There is in Thee, Lord, no stain, nor any spot in Thy Mother."

About AD 390, St Augustine of Hippo wrote, "Every personal sin must be excluded from the Blessed Virgin Mary for the sake of the honor of God." And in Nature and Grace, Augustine noted, "Having excepted the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins--for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?--so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?"

Martin Luther wrote that Mary's "conception, namely the infusion of the soul, it is piously and suitably believed, was without any sin, so that while the soul was being infused, she would at the same time be cleansed from original sin and adorned with the gifts of God to receive the holy soul thus infused. And thus, in the very moment in which she began to live, she was without all sin..."

Likewise, the old eucharistic preface for Christmas in the Book of Common Prayer reads: "Because thou didst give Jesus Christ, thine only Son, to be born as at this time for us; who, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, was made very man, of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother; and that without spot of sin, to make us clean from all sin."

You can read more Anglican quotes in my post "Without spot of sin."


Texanglican (R.W. Foster+) said...

Don't forget that St. Leo used the term "ever-virgin" to describe Mary in his Tome, endorsed by Council as a statement of orthodoxy at Chalcedon in 451, Father.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Thank you for the reminder, Father. I'll integrate that detail into the post.